Let’s talk money!

linhas de mocambiqueI am known for being a jet setter for reasons that are only partially attributable to me. Frankly, all of my recent voyages (for the last 5 years) can be 90% attributable to my profession. When at 19, I signed up for a career I didn’t really understand, I certainly didn’t realize the impact my career choice would have on many aspects of my life. My last thought was how it would affect my finances. I mean, I was excited about stable income, since I was a hustling nanny trying to live in New York City. So, now, it’s almost a decade later, and reality is settling in. What the Facebook pictures don’t say is that I am a glorified postal worker. I get to scan the world while doing, largely, menial tasks. But, when I walk out of my office to find myself looking at the sunset on the Indian Ocean, I’m reminded that this is what my 19 year-old self signed up for. The travel adventure!

But this isn’t about silver linings. And I can’t eat adventure. Let’s talk money.

People really don’t realize how financially stressful it is to live a constantly oscillating life abroad. Let me explain: When you have no idea where you’re going to live 2 years from now, it certainly makes keeping a budget difficult. I can’t talk to financial planners, because they want me to budget my groceries and stick to that level forever. They treat travel as a luxury, instead of a source of income. They want me to keep a log of my spending habits, but I struggle to keep track of the currencies and exchange rates. How much is South African Rand in dollars today? And the Indian rupee last year this time? They don’t understand what it means to have to travel to another country to get cheaper groceries – do I add in the cost of 2 tanks of gas and tolls to my grocery bills? My situation is abnormal, but not unusual. Just ask my military friends – they get it! Anyway, my world is one of feast and famine.

I am recognizing the patterns of my travel transitions. I arrive in a new country. I spend 6 months going places, buying things, traveling with new friends, and paying for it all on my credit card. Mind you, I have no clue what this funny money is really worth and I’m working like a dog during the week. I tell myself I have to enjoy this. I, You, WE only live once! Who knows when I’ll be back here again? And, did I mention, I’m working like a dog during the week? Let’s call this a 6-month feast of fantasy. At some point, I wake up and realize that I’m over my head in credit card debt and that something has to give. Usually, I find some finance clean up book (think Suze Orman, The Budgetnista, Personal Finance for Dummies, I could go on…), steal some tips, get a plan together, work all 7 cylinders for about 1 year to get my act and my credit together. Great, so now there’s 6 months left in this country of my career’s choosing and I want to take full advantage. So, I hit the bucketlist – hard! I depart for the continental United States with what seems like a reasonable amount of debt for a woman of my age and station in life.

But now I’m back in America, where my job forces me to NOT work for a month. LOVELY! Finally, one Congressional mandate I believe in. I’m not used to living on my mom’s couch for 30 days straight, so I travel for about half of it. (Add up the cost of these plane tickets and “I’m back in Amurikah” spending sprees). I end up back in Washington for light work before I leave for the next destination. In Washington, I’m paying for expenses I’ve forgotten exist. Yoga classes? Gym membership? Cellphone bill? I’m not even sure how to use these services, but its nice to have the option again, so why not? Can you hear the happiness of my credit card companies growing? Oh! I forgot to mention that I took a pay cut for coming back to the U.S. of A., even for this brief respite. So, I’m spending like a princess, but my salary is that of an entry-level trainee at McDonald’s. This goes on for about 6 months or so. I tell myself that when I go to my next country, I’ll be able to catch up.

I get to the next new & exciting place. Trailing behind me are all the debts I’ve wracked up from leaving the last amazing city and floating my broke, overspending ass in DC for 6 months, and I still want to spend the next 6 months going places, buying things, traveling with new friends, and paying for it all on my credit card. You see this vicious cycle growing out of control? Well, I sure as hell do! And I’ve decided to stop this shit. Really!

How exactly? Basically, by going into my 7-cylinder year clean up sooner in the cycle. Why wait a whole 6 months before I realize that CapitalOne is milking me like a cow? And, by realizing that spending money is something I do, but I have to do more purposefully and carefully.

One thing that always worked for me when I was in college is the reminder that money is just a form of currency. It’s meant to move. It doesn’t grow unless it’s given and received. Life isn’t about hoarding – cash, experiences, or possessions. So, every time I needed my income to grow, I did something counterintuitive. I took it upon myself to give. I gave to charity, to the guy on the street I normally walked right past, to the kids raising money for their basketball team. Sometimes it was just a dollar. Other times more. But, it reminded me that not having money was never my problem. Having it and spending purposefully, instead, has been a life long struggle.

On this, my latest trip across the Atlantic Ocean, I decided not to wait for a whole 6 months or even a New Year to resolve to make a change. It’s time for me to go back to giving, rather than spending. And when it’s not purposeful or meaningful, it’s time for me to go on a fiscal fast. Oddly enough, most people don’t know what my fasts look like. And that’s part of why I’m sharing this lesser known part of my journey.

I don’t take travel out of my budget, because for me it’s not a luxury, it’s a fact of life. But, that’s my reality. In times like these, I’ve turned off my cable all together. I only put $20 of gas in my car and made myself make it work each week – to/from work only. I bought only fresh vegetables from the local market, rather than going to the overpriced supermarket with lots of variety, but imported packaged prices. And as I say it now, I know some people are saying, “what kind of fast is that?” The point here is that my fast is my fast. I have to do what works for me, not the cookie cutter budget from a book for people who lead a more predictable life than mine. Being a nomad is how I make my daily bread, but it’s up to me to decide how I slice it and if I can afford to butter it.

“So what’s the point of this long rant?” you may ask. Well, it’s 2 fold:

1 – I’ve found myself in many conversations lately where money was a topic. Particularly in Mozambique, people count your money for you. They ask what brand you’re wearing. They would rather travel to South Africa for an afternoon to shop for food than to spend the night on the same trip and see a nature park. It’s all about letting people see what you have, not about enjoying 1) what you have, 2) who you are, or 3) what your money can afford you. In this space (and even my hometown in New Joizey) being humble doesn’t translate. And no matter how honest I am, people always I assume I have money – lots of it. Let’s be honest. Since I’ve become a career woman, I’ve become part of the working middle class, who – once you actually count their incoming/outgoing cash flow – is actually cash poor. BUT my profession provides the basics in fabulous fashion. Read: Don’t be fooled. If you walk into my house, none of this shit is mine!

A lot of people’s self worth is tied to how much money they have and how much money others think they have. We are all victims and perpetrators. But, this is my latest attempt to shake myself free. This is my attempt to remove the veil that social media and distant allure perpetuate. Remember? My McDonald’s sized paychecks are provided by the employer that let’s me be a glorified postal worker in cities you’ve never heard of. It’s as simple as that.

Financial freedom is an individual road that we can all travel. Mine has taken me to two countries on the edge of the Indian Ocean, but yours may take you just down the street. Both are valid. Either way, walk your own path and be honest in that truth. Cash rich, debt free, and all the ebbs and flows between.

2—I haven’t been giving like I should. I haven’t been giving, in any real sense of the word. I’ve been spending. And it’s time to make a change. I thought about doing this in 2014, but somehow my own wants got in the way. But 2015 is a different time and yet another opportunity to be better than I’ve ever been. Each month I will give $25 to a different charity in honor of or in support of people/causes that have touched me. Let’s be clear, I’m declaring this publicly not show off (or even inspire, frankly), but to hold myself accountable to a group of peers and family members whose opinion of me I value. Sometimes declarations said in silence are all too easily forgotten. A la 2014. So listed below are the 12 charities that will receive a donation from me next year.

1- Whitman-Walker Clinic, DC

2- Community Foodbank of New Jersey

3-Livro Aberto, Children’s Literacy in Mozambique

4-Newark Arts Council

5-The City School, Boston

6-The Susan G. Komen Foundation

7-Deepalaya Foundation

8-The Newark Museum

9-Harlem Children’s Zone

10-Children’s Aid Society

11-American Civil Liberties Union

12-Common Good City Farm

In 2015, I’ll be sure to send you a monthly update reminding you of the month’s chosen charity AND the connection I have with its cause.

Here’s to keeping me honest (Maybe that’s something else I can attribute to my profession) and showing the reality behind the passport stamps. May my journey be one you grow context from and one you see as a source of ideas. And may my every day as a public servant jet-setter continue to be as fun and exciting as the 19-year-old in me had hoped it would be.

Here’s to toasting up Martinelli’s instead of Moet… for at least another year.

…de Moët et les hommes…

Great things have come from France. For example, we have Pierre L’Enfant, who died in time to let Benjamin Banneker take the lead on Washington, DC. This is the same L’Enfant who was fired from the planning of Paterson, NJ (not good enough for Paterson, but perfect for the nation’s capital? err?). We also have my personal favorite, French fries. Apparently they actually started in Belgium, but the French win the gold ribbon for taking credit and running with it this long. And last, but not least, Parisians gave us Christian Louboutin. I’m a huge fan of any man who can tickle me pink, while I paint the town red. He truly is the elixir whenever I’m poutin.  So, with so much admiration from afar, why is it that we just can’t seem to get along?

Well, I decided to go to Paris to get to the bottom of this Atlantic Ocean east coast, west coast rivalry. I consulted all the experts – the taxi drivers and hoteliers, the Christians and the Muslims, the academics and the free lancers. And I came up with just a short list.

 Americans hate because:

  • There’s no way to make English sound sexy.  Not an Aussie or a Brit, a New Zealander or an American can purse their lips to make the mundane sound as if you’re just repeating the words “Zsa Zsa Gabor” with varied tone and inflection. I personally am not a huge fan of the French language, but I will say that whatever they say sounds important, pressing and sensual.  I’m sure the taxi guy was just telling me to fly a kite, but it’s cool – just keep talking Frenchie.
  • The French protest because they want to work less. Americans protest because they want to work more. (Read: The French come off as lucky, whiny ingrates.) Dare I say, the French approach is downright against American values.  It’s one thing to camp out on a well trafficked bridge or in a homeless camp because you can’t work—but the French take to the streets, because their secure government jobs make them show up to work… and expect that they produce… something… anything.  There is a lot of jealousy raging here. What government employee doesn’t want to take to the streets on a work day to demand more benefits? The French are ballsy. We talk about it, they be about it. Ain’t that ‘bout a [je ne sais quoi]?

French hate because:

  • The French language stopped being politically relevant about the time the Princesses Nubiennes album dropped.  (Read: Before the turn of the only century that counts – this one!)  In diplomacy, English reigns supreme. In second grade classrooms the world over, the new second language is Spanish. The French are proud of their culture enough to take this as a personal slight. Oh well… having to close your nose, talk through your teeth and spit on your peers – is nobody’s idea of fun. At least they have the majority of Africa and some Caribbean islands still hot on their heels.
  • The jury is still out on whether or not quality of life is better between the two countries. So, barring a clear French victory, that’s a U.S. win by default. While the mid – late 20th century Black emigration of greats like Nina Simone and James Baldwin counts for something, it’s hard to find any one in Paris who thinks that life in the 21st century is better there than in any major American city – say, New York or Los Angeles.  Some doubt that in the U.S. the French Elle article “Black Fashion Power,” would ever have been printed. This gives cause to re-examine French superiority.  It could have happened in the U.S., but the very thought that it might not have… keeps the French hating on the greener grass of Black American pastures.

With that said, it’s hard to see what the beef’s about. Perhaps, we’re just both chicken- coo cooing about cultural vulnerabilities that have evolved over time to become whatever our imaginations will allow. Paris has an allure that looms larger than the Eiffel Tower. (And as it turns out, when I finally saw it up close – I was not all that impressed.)  As my grandma so eloquently put it, “Paris is like Newark.” She really said that – and while it still makes 99.999% of no sense whatsoever to me, that remaining smidge holds true.

When I broke bread with other ninjas in Paris and swapped stories, I think we both gained some insight into the experience of the other half…The homeless and the rude, the pushy and the unfriendly, the smiles of no substance – they are what major cities are made of; and the personalities of major cities are what national imaginations are made of. But once you break it all down, we’re more similar than we think and that’s probably why we hate so hard from a far. Opposites attract, not kinda similarly passive aggressive personalities.

I’m pretty sure that by the end of dinner on Place du Docteur Félix Lobligeois, we all left with a mutual understanding of each others’ experiences and an even more grounded appreciation of our own countries.  Just the thought of living in Paris had me mumbling “that sh*t cray” into my Moët.